The most “televisually” enlightened people agree that it is difficult to create a buzz for a television show. The scenaristic effort required to maintain the interest level of an over-stimulated and highly critical public is gigantic. Few people would have bet that a solution lies within the quiet and unwritten world of slow TV.
Slow TV from a cold land
Since the inception of “slow food” in Italy in 1986, all sorts of human activity now have their “slow” counterpart: slow cities, slow fashion, slow money, slow education and so forth. The slow movement is based on respect for the environment, the natural course of things and the expectation of transformation. It is a response to the huge wave of instantaneity and youth culture that has invaded our lives.
In 2009, Norwegian TV producer Thomas Hellum decided—almost as a joke—to film a 7 hour 14 minute train trip between Oslo and Bergen as part of a WWII commemorative program.
Norwegian public broadcaster NRK2 aired the trip and… surprise! A total of 1.2 million viewers sat down in front of their TV sets, pulverizing audience records in the process. At the same time, thousands of Twitter and Facebook discussions shook Norway’s audiovisual landscape like never before. Duration and nature: modern slow TV was born in Norway.
Thomas Hellum and his team decided to surf on this incredible wave and produce other shows based on the inspiration of a brief event that occurred during the initial train journey. A journalist had taken a photo of the train they had travelled on. The team therefore asked itself the following question: “What would happen if a greater number of people had known that the train was at this platform?”
The team decided to up the tempo and air live a journey by boat from Bergen to Kirkenes (a five-and-a-half day trip) along the Norwegian coast. Not only would the journey be broadcast live, but also it would be based on the desires of fans who had been numerous to share what they wanted to see on the web prior to the event.
The results speak volumes and are fascinating:
Peaks of 3.6 million viewers (considering the country has a population of 5.6 million)
Twitter disabled because of saturation
134 hours, 42 minutes and 42 seconds of live streamed content, thus setting a Guinness world record for the longest documentary
An exceptional human experience having brought a people together to experience a common, positive and totally fictional adventure
NRK2 audience ratings over the 5 days of airing
The courage of boredom
As is the case of any innovation, it originated from a moment of distraction. A moment of pure mind-wandering beyond the acquired powerlessness that we are fed throughout the day. With respect to the demonstration made by Thomas Hellum, it is important to retain the elements that created this magical moment between a public that transformed into a closely knit community and a TV show:
- No summary
- No editing
- Attention to the community’s wishes
- Live broadcasting on the website and TV
- Live sharing and management of innovative cameras (technology and framing)
- Twitter feed and Facebook page accessible by the public and media
- Mobile phone compatibility
- Simultaneous access to the content in various formats
But first and foremost, allowing the public to tell the story without restraint.
The main factor of success was the emergence of a new principle: “Wave TV.” In the same way a surfer rides a wave, the television viewer rides the program as it is presented, when he wants and as much as he wants using the means of his choosing.
The conversation BECOMES the event and can therefore change in an instant. A truly collective work, the fact of joining the program WHILE it is being shot is a critical factor of success. The infamous rendezvous…
This volatility brings slow TV closer to another type of programming that is much more expensive to produce: live sports. Live sports have the reputation of being the most addictive form of programming that exists and of creating an unequalled buzz. Just consider the huge costs of rebroadcasting the Olympic Games or Formula 1 Grand Prix events and imagine the commercial benefits of this buzz.
Slow TV represents something of a call to order in this ultra-competitive setting. It generates the same level of buzz as sports events and demonstrates that creating addictive programming does not only depend on a story of human dimensions but also on true sincerity firmly based on positive values in tune with our cognitive characteristics. We are our own limits. This is naturally demonstrated by sports but also by slow TV it would seem. That may just be the new find, the evidence that changes everything and that generates interest for something that does not really exist in writing. As Thomas Hellum admitted candidly, the train project could be summarized on a single sheet of paper…
Being there just in case…
This motive was not invented by reality TV but instead magnified by it. We all remember the hypnotic wood fires or bull’s eyes aired before the day’s programming during our youth. Who among us never wandered off during these moments that were as empty of meaning as they were filled with promise? In 1963, Andy Warhol filmed a poet friend sleeping an entire night. Since a long time, the web hosts HD pay channels featuring bucolic fires or wonderful aquariums.
The hidden key of power over a human being is the promise of what is possible, repetition, indirect support that allows his mind to wander. Pushed to its negative limits, this syndrome is known as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and it symbolizes our complex relations with events. New technology benefits greatly from this weakness and has greatly contributed to our inability to make decisions, to let go, to go here instead of there, to close the computer… Facebook and Twitter—that provide a direct outlook on a certain reality managed as a fiction—are known to be factors that accelerate this syndrome.
Fasten your seatbelts!
We need to be reminded that weaknesses and strengths coexist. On the good side of the force, there are slow TV shows that provide us with opportunities to contemplate, rest and gather with others, tools of rebellion or political reflection. For example, in the US, Travel Channel announced an initiative consisting of a 12-hour uninterrupted show that will air on November 27, 2015, i.e., on Black Friday. “Slow Road Live” will invite viewers “to embark on a road trip aboard a convertible to contemplate the beauty of the world around us,” as keyed by Ross Babbit, Travel Channel’s Senior VP, Programming and Development. The journey is programmed on America’s most frantic shopping day of the year… It’s a signal that TV is able to invent innovative and surprising forms that magnify the codes of the era to which it testifies.
Leaving the beaten path does not mean “thinking outside the box” but rather understanding the box. Slow TV contributes to better self-awareness and reminds us that we are all romantics who openly enjoy others’ company. It’s now up to television to remember this and create beauty. I invite you to listen to Thomas Hellum’s presentation on slow TV (18 minutes of pure pleasure).